Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Ever since I was young, I have always wanted to help people. For as long as I can remember I have had the desire to 'give back'. In 2015, I made the decision to 'give back' to a community in Tanzania. Writing this now, I feel very uncomfortable to admit my choices. Yet it is so important to share this mistake of mine. Little did I know that my desires were nothing more than something to fill my own self-gratification and actually had detrimental impacts on the people I was engaging with. Through my International Development journey, it initially came as a shock to me that volunteering abroad could have such impacts. Although I had good intentions, there was a lot for me to learn and reconsider.
Through this long journey of realisation, I have seen first hand the detrimental and traumatic impacts voluntourism can bring to a community and individuals. A typical response I have had, when arguing against voluntourism is the notion that “something is better than nothing”-which translates to a very undermining viewpoint that says, ‘if I do not help, no one will’. Through such a viewpoint, young unskilled people are replacing individuals that have real qualifications and beneficial skills. There is an automatic assumption that people within developing countries have no skill; which significantly undermines these nations and automatically gives ‘developed’ nations a superiority.
During my journey and studies, I have had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Claire Bennett. Claire has just published a book she co-authored with three other inspiring individuals, called 'Learning Service- The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad'. I cannot stress enough how important and valuable this book is; especially at a time where voluntourism is growing more than ever.
A prominent phrase within the book that stuck with me was the notion that- 'action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness'. Which is a phrase I wish I had of known prior to my own ignorant choices when volunteering abroad at 18 years old. Learning Service is a book that puts such complex issues and ideas into very simple and basic explanations and scenarios- so people of all backgrounds can understand the detrimental impacts volunteering abroad can bring. It is extremely essential for people to start educating themselves on this issue.
"Action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness"
When we know better, we can do better and Learning Service suggests that we have to learn before we can help. Essentially the Western narrative of development now involves individuals unlearning and relearning a new perspective- it’s about what WE do day to day. If you want to give back to the world- you must start with yourself first. Learning Service suggests that one way to understand this issue and its impacts is to unpack our assumptions about volunteer travel and flip the traditional definition of international service on its head. Instead of imagining yourself going abroad to volunteer, consider what it would be like to have these same programs and processes in your own country. Each and every problem in this world is complex, it’s not as simple as just building a well or teaching children ‘ABC’ 365 days of the year.
Within the beginning chapters of the book, it states:
“This book sets out a fresh new framework, learning service, which radically changes the assumptions and practices of international volunteering. We explore why this new form of travel is needed, exposing the deep and shocking problems with current practices as well as the benefits of this new approach. Learning service puts learning at the forefront, arguing that before we can effectively ‘serve’, first we must learn- about ourselves, our options, and the wider context in which our action takes place. It is the learning-first approach that we set out in this book, both explaining why it is needed, and helping you out it into practice.”
10 million people will go abroad this year to volunteer. These are big numbers, with bigger impacts. We all have good intentions- it's just about educating ourselves first. If you are eager to volunteer travel- this book is for you. I truly wish I had of read this book when I was 18 years old. Although my intentions were good, I would have benefited greatly from its lessons and gained a relevant skill first before trying to help.
You can grab a copy of this amazing book here: